Thanks for this - I think you’re absolutely right that we shouldn’t confuse Spring Breakers with, say, Hobo with a Shotgun. And the parallels you draw between earlier exploitation forms and Spring Breakers seems appropriate. I’m wondering what we gain by dubbing Spring Breakers “exploitation”? Does it help us crystallize what other films might be labelled exploitation in the contemporary moment (I, for instance, like to teach Springs Breakers with The Bling Ring - is their something about the latter film that also earns an exploitation title)?
Another question I think your post raises is how something might be exploited. In the post-war period you mention, it was possible to “exploit” something in a couple of months - a news story about bikers appears, a movie goes into production the next day, and appears in theaters in a month. Despite the apparent ease with which movies can be made now compared to the mid-century (at least technologically), the cycle of news/information that informs exploitation trends has increased faster than production can keep up with. I’m not sure what to say about that except, perhaps, that the theatrical version of exploitation was never the ideal marriage between subjects and the desire to exploit them.
I agree that thinking of exploitation cinema as more of a mode than a genre is very useful, in that a “mode” (following David Bordwell) would encompass distinct means of production, distribution, and exhibition. Schaefer’s focus on “classical” exploitation cinema of the Production Code era is obviously a marked example of distinct production and exhibition practices (e.g., adults-only, gender-segregated screenings with book pitches, displays, etc.)—but the idea of a “mode” encompassing the broader category of post-classical exploitation cinema also helps us think of how distributors and exhibitors might have had a larger role in framing a given film as “exploitation” than producers themselves, such as through misleadingly sensationalized advertising. Schaefer points to this with the example of Bergman’s “Summer with Monika,” for example, but Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” would also seem to be a throwback to the art/exploitation nexus (wherein the label “art” serves as legitimizing cover for provocation) that would become so big in the 1960s. I’ve also liked thinking of “exploitation” as a discursive construction in the same way that James Naremore talks about how “film noir” can be variously seen as a genre, a mode, a style, a historical period, a sensibility, etc.
Devin, thanks for the interesting and thought provoking post. I’m curious about, and perhaps this is an obvious point, what seems to be an inversion between the two historical moments of exploitation you mention. In the first, older and traditionally cinematic, there seems to be an inherent curiosity tied to content. That is, the content seems to offer some hidden or repressed wisdom about the world that we should know (e.g., violence is gruesome, not fun and trivial, etc.). But in the second rendering there seems to be an appeal to exploitation concerning matters that we didn’t want to know (e.g., what does an actual beheading look like, what does a person do when being tortured, etc.). I’m curious if this is implicit in your point, or perhaps I’m off the mark more generally. Thanks for prompting me to think about this!
I like these questions. I was thinking about Mondo and FoD as well. And I think the LiveLeak material does work according to a similar logic. But that logic is pushed into a rather different service in these cases. There is an appeal to a kind of morbid curiosity. It’s interesting to look at the LiveLeak feed and see the videos these videos appear next to. The thread connecting them is their ability to shock. But I wonder if it’s less about the portals hosting these videos and more about their existence in the first place..? I think a desire/need to look is being exploited.
I think your concept of exploitation as mode is quite generative, especially considering the limitation of genre and the frequency to which the concept of the “exploitation genre” is often linked uncritically back to Schaefer’s classical period regardless of the production circumstances, time period, etc. of the film. I wonder if the concept of mode can also be connected back to audience reception, broadening it past the text of the film itself and connecting it to the film’s cultural life. I am thinking of a film like MOMMY DEAREST, whose production was not specifically intended in the exploitation mode, but whose reception—through audience reactions during early test screenings and upon release—constructed it retroactively in the exploitation (or perhaps in the exploitation camp) mode. Can the concept of exploitation as mode offer us a more flexible designation for considering both the industrial as well as cultural constructions of the exploitation label?
Would it be useful to see Liveleak’s beheading videos as part of a longer trend? Can we historicize them as connected to such older exploitation variants as the 1980s “Faces of Death”-type docs, 1960s mondo films, 1940s “atrocity” films, and so on…all the way back to Edison’s executions of elephants and prisoners? The exploitation of documentary footage of “barbaric” practices and/or real deaths is certainly nothing new, but is it the easy spreadability of such content today that makes these videos seem different? Or perhaps the shadowy origins of such videos and their propagandistic instrumentality marks them as different from the defensively claimable “entertainment” and “edification” function of earlier variants?
You raise an interesting question, Adam - perhaps generalizable as what, exactly, is being exploited in an exploitation movie. Must it be sex and violence? Historically, I think the answer is no, and there’s no reason that the other sensations you mention couldn’t be the basis for an exploitation of the future.
If an exploitation film doesn’t stir any sensations - if sex and violence have become passe - I still think there’s something to to appeal to those sensations whether or not they land. Pornography is pornography even if I’m not aroused by it. But perhaps this makes for an historicizing opportunity, where we can examine and understand a given era’s exploitation as measured by what it deems worth sensationalizing. Unfriended - which I think sensationalizes our mediated encounters through Skype, etc - might be a more of-the-moment example of exploitation than even Von Trier’s work because Unfriended can mobilize some of those affects on the side of viewers in a way that Von Trier probably doesn’t provoke his audience the same way he did almost two decades ago with The Idiots.
Hi Gordon, great post, thanks for starting things off this week. I’m curious if we could mobilize your rendering of a mode here to address films that don’t traffic in sex or violence? It seems to me that the opportunity to engage sensations and experiences of sex and violence might be so abundant that they don’t stir much of a sensation at all. I’m curious if sex and violence are vital to thinking about exploitation as mode, or if perhaps today’s media landscape has redirected the idea of exploitation to other sensations like boredom, mania, or even something like FOMO?
This is a good, careful unpacking of the types of data that will be gleaned from our everyday lives via smart devices. It really raises questions not only of who gets the vital data from our past preferences, but also how they will then go on to shape those preferences (and us) in the future. I’ve learnt a lot from this post.